Why is Illinois Shrinking?

Illinois' population declined in 2016 for the third straight year, losing more people than any other state in the union. The drop of more than 37,000 people leaves Illinois with a population just north of 12.8 million.

Kathleen Cagney, director of the Population Research Center at NORC and the University of Chicago, sees lack of entry-level jobs and a declining birth rate as major factors in Illinois’ population drop.

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“If you can’t get entry-level employment and you’re thinking of perhaps starting a family, you don’t see that kind of stability or permanence that will allow you to take root somewhere,” Cagney said.

For Rob Paral of demographics and public policy firm Rob Paral and Associates, the issue isn’t as much the decline in Illinois’ population as it is the state’s flat growth trajectory.

“We had three years of population growth up until three years ago, and now we’ve had three years of population decline. So there are these little blips up and these little blips down,” Paral said. “What’s happening is that we’re just not growing in the way that the rest of the country is.”

Paral’s quick to add that it’s not just Illinois lagging behind the rest of the country – it’s our neighbors around the Midwest, too. And while people moving from Illinois to another state isn’t new, they’re not being offset by new births or by immigration.

Cagney also thinks lingering effects of the recession play a role. “You see a lot of what people describe as boomerang kids, the kids who come back and co-reside with parents after college. And so that’s going to delay family formation, for lots of obvious reasons. There’s some evidence that people are delaying marriage and then delaying childbearing, which means you’re going to have a smaller family,” Cagney said. “So as we’ve seen people moving out of Illinois broadly, we’re not seeing the replacement fertility.”

Despite the gloomy numbers, Paral says some of the data show contradictions. “We’ve got a population getting older, and a population that’s not growing very much. So you’re going to have fewer taxpayers, you have fewer consumers, you have fewer people to lead consumer-driven growth,” he said. “On the other hand, there are some savings when you have an older population. We have less need for schools, for example, and the taxpayers we have proportionally are in their highest-taxpaying years.”

He also notes that some parts of the state are booming. “[There are] just historic numbers of new housing units being built in about a five mile radius of the Loop. Some populations are doing well. But then other groups are leaving in very large numbers, like African-Americans,” Paral said. “And then geographically speaking, almost all of the downstate area has been heading toward a half century decline.”

Declining population in places where social and physical infrastructures are built for density takes its toll on residents Cagney says, such as higher crime rates, worse health and mental health outcomes, fewer businesses in the community.

But she also thinks creative, apolitical solutions might help slow Illinois’ trend. Cagney points to the Kalamazoo Promise, an anonymously funded scholarship program that pays in-state college tuition for every student in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

“It’s an interesting program because it changes the age structure, so now Kalamazoo’s a younger city,” Cagney said. “I think there is some evidence to suggest that it has spurred economic activity, because you’re bringing in people – the parents of those kids – who are actively engaged in the labor market.”

Cagney and Paral join Chicago Tonight for a conversation.

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